Ranking Atlanta Falcons' 10 Most Critical Players
As training camps get underway in the NFL, the Atlanta Falcons are looking to have a bounce-back season. They have brought in players to help both their offensive and defensive lines. They will also be getting several players back who had to sit out much of 2013.
Training camp is all about positivity.
So, here are the Atlanta Falcons' 10 most critical players in 2014. This does not necessarily mean the players with the most talent, but rather the players who will have the most influence in whether or not the team wins.
10. Devin Hester
One of the Falcons' weakest areas last season was their return game. According to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, "In 2013 the Falcons ranked 20th of 30 teams with an average punt return of 8.3 yards and their long return of 25 yards was tied for third-shortest in the league."
Hester should provide an immediate spark to the return game, but his impact may extend to other aspects of the game. In a video by TYT Sports (above), Rick Strom and Jayar Jackson talk about the potential uses for Hester in the Falcons offense.
If the 31-year-old is going to be impactful on the offense, it would be a major improvement over his play in 2013.
Devin Hester was used only as a return man last season, failing to log a single offensive snap. He played 340 offensive snaps in 2012.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 6, 2014
9. Harry Douglas
Harry Douglas had his best professional season in 2013. He posted career highs in receptions (82), receiving yards (1,067) and receiving touchdowns (2).
The departure of Tony Gonzalez means that someone else will have to step up and replace the future Hall of Famer's production. According to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the Falcons expect Douglas to be the person to do it:
The Falcons don’t have a tight end that they plan to feature in the passing attack. They will try to use more three-wide receiver sets to help replace some of the production. Gonzalez averaged more than 80 catches a season and 65 percent of his receptions went for first downs over the past five seasons.
8. Steven Jackson
Steven Jackson struggled in 2013. In his first season as an Atlanta Falcon, Jackson ran for a career-low 543 yards. His 3.5 yards per carry also represented a career low.
Jackson spoke with Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution about why the transition from St. Louis to Atlanta was difficult and why he expects things to turn around this season:
When I came here last year, I kind of believed my own hype. The team was so close to going to the Super Bowl, and I thought I was going to be the missing link. Then reality slaps you. It’s still a team sport.
This year I know I don’t have to shoulder the burden of carrying the franchise. I’m not the missing piece, I’m just one piece. I feel comfortable knowing that I can still compete at a high level. But all of the unnecessary stress is gone.
As the Falcons look to rebound from a disastrous 2013 season, they will need Jackson to play better so they can improve upon what was the worst running game in the league (77.9 yards per game) last season.
7. Desmond Trufant
The Falcons released veteran cornerback Asante Samuel in the offseason. This means that second-year player Desmond Trufant will step into the role as the team's top cornerback.
Trufant played well in his rookie season, racking up two interceptions, 17 pass deflections and one forced fumble. His play has caught the attention of those around the league. Kevin Patra of NFL.com believes he has the ability to become one of the league's best corners:
The Falcons will be asking a lot more of Trufant in 2014, but according to George Henry of the Associated Press, Trufant believes he and fellow cornerback Robert Alford will be able to handle it:
We were always confident, but I think we’re just really getting comfortable now. We’ve got some new people and we’ve got some people returning, too, so we’re still growing together, but we’re flying around out there. We’re making plays and we’ve just got to keep grinding.
6. Jonathan Babineaux
One of the veterans returning to the Falcons defense in 2014 is 32-year-old defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux. He signed a three-year extension with the team in the offseason.
In their third season under defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons will mix 3-4 and their traditional 4-3 alignments in hopes of keeping opponents guessing.
One 3-4 alignment has Jackson, Soliai and Jonathan Babineaux as the down linemen, with Biermann and Jonathan Massaquoi as hybrid outside linebackers-ends.
One 4-3 alignment for passing situations uses traditional ends Biermann, Mallicah Goodman and Osi Umenyiora as down linemen alongside Babineaux, who's played most of his career at tackle.
As you can see, Babineaux is the only player on the defensive line in both schemes. He will need to be a disruptive force this season if the Falcons want to make improvements against the run.
2013 was a mediocre season for Babineaux. He finished with 28 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble.
5. Roddy White
Perhaps the Falcons' most talkative player, Roddy White is also one of their more productive ones. White suffered through an injury-plagued 2013, but after an offseason of rest, he expects to get back to being one of the league's premier receivers.
The Falcons seem to believe White can do just that, as ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that they signed him to a four-year extension on Thursday:
Falcons WR Roddy White's new four-year deal with ATL is worth up to $30 million, including $18 million the next two seasons, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 24, 2014
Some worry that the contract is too much money and term for a 32-year-old player coming off an injury. The video above shows Allie LaForce and Doug Gottlieb of the CBS Sports show Lead Off discussing these concerns.
The Falcons believe White will return to the receiver who had six consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons between 2007-2012. With no Gonzalez, there will be more pressure on White to be that type of player again. The Falcons can't have Julio Jones be the only threat in the passing game.
4. Jake Matthews
The worst aspect of the Atlanta Falcons last season was their offensive line. Besides having the worst running game in the league, the Falcons' offensive line also gave up the 10th-most sacks (44).
The Falcons addressed this issue in the 2014 NFL draft when they took offensive tackle Jake Matthews from Texas A&M. The selection was praised by ESPN analysts (video above), who believe that Matthews has the ability to come in and start right away.
The Falcons hope they are right, as Paul Newberry of the Associated Press suggests they plan to have Matthews be the starting right tackle in 2014.
However, Matthews won't be able to change the offensive line by himself. Coach Mike Smith knows this and let his team know that during training camp.
"The message has been real clear from the very beginning: We want to get bigger and stronger," said Smith.
3. Paul Worrilow
Paul Worrilow was the Falcons' breakout performer last season. The undrafted rookie out of Delaware stepped up after Atlanta's linebacking corps was decimated by injuries. He finished the season with 127 combined tackles and two sacks.
With Sean Weatherspoon rupturing his Achilles tendon in the offseason, the Falcons will again look to Worrilow to step his game up.
With a year under his belt, Worrilow should expect to see his game improve. According to Jay Adams of AtlantaFalcons.com, he believes he has benefited from his first offseason as a professional:
I feel better. I feel more powerful, a lot quicker. It wasn’t like I was just in the weight room pumping iron every single day. I was on the field probably just as much as I was in the weight room. The big thing with putting the weight on was just a change in diet.
When you’re a professional, you have access to a greater income for food shopping and groceries that you can really focus in on your diet. I attribute that more to my weight change and my physical body difference than it was the workouts.
The Falcons defense ranked 27th in the league last year, allowing an average of 379.4 yards per game. They have to improve on this side of the ball. Worrilow will need to continue his development as an all-around linebacker this season.
2. Julio Jones
No player was missed more last year than Julio Jones. The dynamic receiver was only able to play in five games before breaking his foot.
The Falcons hope his return will lead to a team that more closely resembles that of 2012 than 2013.
Jones is one of the most widely respected players in the NFL. The NFL Network video above placed Jones as the 26th-best player in the league in 2013.
Even Richard Sherman had to give Jones some love.
There is no reason to believe Jones will not return to the player who put up 79 receptions, 1,198 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012. Expect big things from Jones in 2014.
1. Matt Ryan
Who else could it be? There is no more important position in team sports than quarterback, and Matt Ryan has been one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the Falcons.
Despite losing Roddy White and Julio Jones for major portions of the season, Ryan was still able to put up impressive numbers. He threw for 4,515 yards, 26 touchdowns and had a completion percentage of 67.4.
In the video above, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk discussed Ryan in terms of being an elite quarterback.
Whether you consider him elite or not, there is no denying that Ryan is a very good NFL quarterback. With his weapons returning and an improved offensive line, he has a chance to lead the Falcons deep into the playoffs in 2014.